American Grotesque: William Mortensen, Photographer as ‘Antichrist’

This is a guest post from Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey regarding two fascinating new books related to photographer William Mortensen.

Now that smartphones have become the camera of choice, it seems strange that photographers once belonged to divergent schools that battled one another, and sometimes quite viciously at that. The style that integrated painterly techniques with film technology was called Pictorialism. The “modernists” who dismissed complex photo techniques called themselves Group f/64 before they enlarged their influence, ultimately becoming known as “Purists.” For the Purists, sharp focus was the only natural way to photograph an image, and nature itself was the preferred subject.

Purists like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston did brilliant work in their careers, but it seemed important to them to remove Pictorialism from textbooks, galleries and museums. Their bête noire was none other than William Mortensen, who had for decades published many instructional manuals and reproduced his work in major photo magazines of the time, most notably Camera Craft. Mortensen specialized in a style that emphasized a grotesque look, which tended to feature many nudes. Compared to the trees and mountainsides that Ansel Adams shot, Mortensen’s work was accused of being exploitative and distasteful.

Purist hate was so intense that Adams even referred to Mortensen as “the antichrist.”

I had first heard of Mortensen from Anton LaVey, who had a photograph called “Fear” hanging in his Black House kitchen. In this photo a distressed woman is enveloped by a black-cloaked demonic entity. Anton acknowledged that Mortensen’s book The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze changed his life, teaching him the basics of what he called “Lesser Magic.” LaVey also co-dedicated The Satanic Bible to Mortensen.

When Photoshop techniques and manipulated digital photography took hold in recent decades, the Pictorialist style once again became quite prominent though by then the Purists had long ago successfully bounced Mortensen out of public recognition. This was the reason I found it important to publish both Mortensen’s The Command To Look, which also includes Michael Moynihan’s article on Mortensen’s influence on occult researcher Manly Palmer Hall and Anton LaVey. We have also published a Mortensen monograph called American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen, that includes an illuminating biography by Larry Lytle, a great deal of heretofore unpublished images and Mortensen’s textual battles with Purists from photo magazines. We hope that this evidence of William Mortensen’s brilliance once again revives his reputation and cements his rightful place in the history of the Photographic Arts.

—Adam Parfrey.

Here are some examples of William Mortensen’s work from American Grotesque

“Fear” aka “Obsession”

“A Family Xmas, 1914” 1932

“The Strapado”

More Mortensen after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Pure Filth: Perversions on Parade

Without a doubt, America’s most dangerous independent publisher is Adam Parfrey’s storied Feral House. In a career marked by by such gleefully transgressive volumes as Apocalypse Culture, Extreme Islam and the recent coffee table recreation of the Process cult’s freaky 60s magazines, Parfrey may have staked out some of his most risque territory yet with his upcoming publication of a limited edition book for… “specialists.”

Has it been a decade since Feral House signed up the Jamie Gillis / Peter Sotos collaboration, Pure Filth?

Well, yes it has.

Power of persuasion convinced me to do this project way back when. And why? Peter Sotos called it a “dogshit” book, and we’ve always wanted to publish dogshit books.

It contains transcripts, images and introductions to Jamie Gillis’ “Gonzo” porn videos, rare things from that strange, dull, and life-sucking genre. The late Jamie Gillis, who possessed charm in person, is most widely known as a weasly porn performer from its “golden age.” As a side project, Jamie went out on his own with a ho and video camera, inveigling various masturbators found in adult books parlors to be filmed having actual sex instead. The Gonzo films became more notorious than purchased, inspiring dozens of offshoots in contemporary television, as well as Burt Reynolds’ character in the Hollywood movie Boogie Nights.

Jamie sent Pete some strange, sadistic videos that had never even found popular distribution. This wasn’t porn, this was despair, and Pete became motivated to transcribe the existential scenarios of sadism, masochism, and most of all, showoff self-hatred.

When I had dinner with the authors at a San Francisco North Beach Italian restaurant, Jamie pleaded with me to allow him to sell what he called a “memoir” before Pure Filth was released so as not to horrify the big ticket NY publishers. It turned out that the memoir proposal horrified them anyway, what with a recounting of ’70s party scenes, including one in which a 12-year-old girl offered her blowjob services to Jamie, and he gladly accepted them.

No kiddie sex in Pure Filth, we promise, but transcripts of horrifying, embarrassing human degradation.

The book will be available in a very limited, numbered hardcover edition beautifully designed by Hedi El Kholti, known for his designs of Feral House books Lexicon Devil and It‘s a Man’s World. The price is $69, and we expect that they’ll be available in early May.

I’ve heard about this book for a long time and whereas I’ve never seen any of the videotapes that came to be known as “Jamie Gillis’s Secret Stash” (the really twisto videos from his “gonzo” first-person On The Prowl series) they were once vividly described to me by no less of a “specialist” than Marilyn Manson. I can’t say I really wanted to see them after his description, but according to all who have seen them, the tapes don’t work on a “porn” level (unless you’re a totally sick puppy without hope of redemption!) but due to the “interviews” and darkly psychologically bullying “pep talks” that Gillis would subject these people to beforehand as he tried to, um, persuade them to, uh, do stuff and what it might take (such as money) to get them to do these, um, certain things on camera.

I’m not talking about mere sex acts here, either. Imagine, say, what happened before and after they shot “2 Girls, 1 Cup” and then transcribing what remained on the cutting room floor. According to Adam, the transcripts on the printed page of Pure Filth—and what they reveal, shorn of their audio-visual component—are more starkly disturbing than the videos themselves.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Amy Winehouse Teapot

The Amy Winehouse teapot by artist Charles Krafft and Mike Leavitt. As Dangerous Minds pal Adam Parfrey puts it, “Here’s how everyone can enjoy Amy Winehouse forever, and also pour poppy tea…”

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
Sabbath Assembly: Restored to One

Dangerous Minds pal, Adam Parfrey of Feral House infamy, sent me a remarkable CD a few weeks ago, called Restored to One by Sabbath Assembly and I wanted to highly recommend it to y’all. If any of what you are about to read sounds like it might be of interest to you, then trust me, I think it probably will be. You can buy a copy via Feral House.

There is a bit of a back story to the Sabbath Assembly project. The group got together to perform the actual hymns from the 60s apocalypse cult, The Process Church of the Final Judgement as part of a several city book tour/multimedia performance for Timothy Wyllie’s excellent insider’s history of the group, LOVE SEX FEAR DEATH (See my interview with Timothy Wyllie here). They did events in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Portland and Seattle. Not to imply they were some sort of occult Monkees, of course, but that’s I believe how this project came to pass. The New York ceremony was officiated by Genesis Breyer-P-Orridge, who has long been fascinated by the Process (and who wrote the introduction to the book).

From the Sabbath Assembly press release:

Restored to One is a modern response to the musical activities of a cult known as The Process Church of the Final Judgment, who used music to spread their visions of Gnostic reconciliation in a time of cataclysmic change. Sabbath Assembly has re-charged the original hymns of The Process Church and worked them into moving renditions that unite the trinity of rock, psychedelic, and gospel into one triumphant re-awakening.

The Process Church was an intensely creative, apocalyptic shadow side to the flower-powered ‘60s and New Age ‘70s. The influential group opened chapters in London, Europe, and across the United States. Dressing in black cloaks and walking the streets with German shepherds, they created their own intricately designed magazines, and promoted a controversial, quasi-Gnostic theology that reconciled Christ and Satan through deeper awareness and love…

So far, so good, right Dangerous Minds readers? It should sound pretty good, on paper, even, because it’s one of the most interesting albums of 2010.

To begin with, the “sound” of the recording is fairly stunning. It’s quite difficult to achieve a truly authentic early 70s rock sound, but the group, consisting primarily of The No Neck Blues Band’s Dave Nuss, San Francisco-based doom/psych singer Jex Thoth and Sunn O))) producer Randall Dunn perform ably in this regard. If someone played this CD for you and said “Hey, listen to this rad, witchy-sounding metal album from the early 70s that no one’s ever heard before” you’d not question it. (Although having said that, a typical rock snob like me might say “This sounds like Coven. Or Amon Düül” Not that this is a bad thing, of course!)

Musically, Restored to One consists of earnestly rendered doom-folk, ominous proto-metal, gothy call and response gospel and other minor key favoring musical genres. Some of the 40-year-old lyrics are intensely devotional, others quasi-blasphemous.  As you might expect, this being from the Process, the lyrics name-check Christ, Jehovah, Satan and Lucifer. They sing of GODS and not God. The entire project is charged with a special kind of energy. The performances are inspired, in a way that only religious music can be (save for Christian Rock, natch). Religious music has a different quality to all other types of music—I think that makes sense, right?—and the Sabbath Assembly project is infused with that soaring, ineffable quality. As with the films of Kenneth Anger, there is a beautiful evil at the center of the art form, and a lot of conviction behind what they are doing. As a listener, you feel it.

Then there is the voice, the heavenly pipes of Jex Thoth, possessor of a powerful set of lungs and a uniquely retro sounding singing voice. I know the concept of having a “retro” voice seems absurd, but once you hear her voice, you’ll know what I mean by that. Overall the Sabbath Assembly sound does remind me of Coven, which is an obvious comparison, but an appropriate one, nevertheless, but Coven fronted by “Mama Lion” Lynn Carey. If this sounds even remotely like something you’d like, I urge you to check out this unique recording.


Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Process Church of the Final Judgment Event in NYC


Artforum covers the recent Process Church event in NYC:

LEGEND HAS IT that a young L. Ron Hubbard once bragged to his friends that he was going to start a religion and make a million dollars. We all know how that went. Less known is a far smaller rogue offshoot of Scientology that exerted disproportionate influence on late-1960s and early-?

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LOVE, SEX, FEAR, DEATH: The Process Church of the Final Judgment



Our friends at Feral House and Process Media are co-hosting this event at The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles:

Was The Process Church truly “one of the most dangerous Satanic cults in America”? Or were they an intensely creative apocalyptic shadow side to the flower-powered ‘60s and New Age ‘70s? Scores of black-cloaked devotees swept the streets of New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, and other cities selling magazines with titles like “Sex”, “Fear”, “Love” and “Death”, and a theology proposing the reconciliation of Christ and Satan through love. Marianne Faithfull, George Clinton and Mick Jagger participated in Process publications and Funkadelic reproduced Process material in two of their albums. The inside story of this controversial group has at last emerged with Feral House’s LOVE, SEX, FEAR, DEATH by Timothy Wyllie and other former members. Feral House and Process Books present a re-creation of an actual Process Church ?

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment